Just like last year, the familiar No. 24 car will occupy the pole position at this Sunday’s Daytona 500. But instead of two-time Daytona 500 champion Jeff Gordon, the Rick Hendricks-owned car will be piloted by the not-so-familiar Chase Elliot. He’s the son of legendary Daytona 500 and NASCAR champion Bill Elliot and, perhaps more importantly, the youngest driver to ever capture the 500 pole.
After winning the Daytona 500 pole and then retiring at the end of last season, Gordon stepped out of the No. 24 car and into the TV broadcast booth to help telecast the 58th running of the Great American Race. The 20-year-old Elliot has not yet raced as a full-time Sprint Cup driver, but finished with the best time in last Sunday’s qualifying, 196.31 miles per hour. Elliot’s dad, Bill, still holds the record for the fastest qualifying lap ever at Daytona, 210.364 miles per hour in 1987.
Starting alongside Chase Elliot in the outside of Row 1 will be Matt Kenseth. The rest of the 40-car field was set in Thursday night’s two 125-mile Can-Am duels.
Here’s another first: Speedweeks 2016 marks the opening to NASCAR fans of the $400-million redesign of the Daytona International Speedway (DIS) grandstands, DAYTONA Rising. Instead of climbing stairs, five expanded, redesigned entrances, or “injectors” (a series of escalators and elevators) take you from ground level to three different stadium concourses. From end-to-end, the entire facility extends nearly a mile.
Notably, DAYTONA Rising also involves a legacy: the France family.
As chief executive officer of Daytona Beach-based International Speedway Corp., Lesa France Kennedy has been squarely in the middle of the project, which officially broke ground in July 2013. International Speedway Corp. owns and/or operates 13 of the nation’s major motorsports venues, including Daytona.
Kennedy, who also serves as vice chairperson of the corporation’s board of directors, is the granddaughter of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. To extend the family tree, after her grandfather founded NASCAR in the Southeast, her father Bill France Jr. put it on the national map. In addition, her grandmother and mother shared that passion; and her brother, Brian France, is chairman and CEO of NASCAR.
Kennedy’s track record of accomplishments date back more than 30 years. In her first job at DIS, she shared an office with her grandmother, Anne B. France, where they worked selling tickets. Through the years, she’s also painted walls and scrubbed toilets, among other duties. More recently, she turned ticket-taker, when the 2014 Coke Zero 400 was delayed a day by bad weather and many of the track’s part-time workers were unavailable.
Today, DAYTONA Rising has her fingerprints all over it.
As part of the mega makeover, there are five expanded and redesigned entrances that will lead fans to a series of escalators and elevators, transporting them to three concourse levels. Each level features spacious social areas, or concourse “neighborhoods,” along the nearly mile-long frontstretch.
The approximately 101,000 seats will be wider. Twice as many restrooms and three times the previous count of concession stands will better accommodate crowds. The speedway features more than 60 luxury suites with trackside views and a completely revamped hospitality experience for corporate guests.
To maximize views, the grandstand is redesigned, with the front row placed 12 feet higher. Similarly, other lower-level and all upper-level seats have improved sightlines. There are 1,600 video screens and enhanced Wi-Fi to further enhance the fan experience.
Those are just a few of the highlights. The vision for the redevelopment puts an emphasis on enhancing “the complete fan experience,” a mandate from the top, where Kennedy resides.
“We needed to change with the times,” she explains. “For some fans, this is their family vacation. … We want fans coming back, and we hope to open up a new fan base.”
Even while Daytona Rising was in full throttle, Kennedy also took the lead across the street at ONE DAYTONA, another ISC development project. Site work has begun on the complementary retail/entertainment complex, targeted to open in 2017. Phase 1 includes a Cobb movie theater, Marriott brand hotel and a Bass Pro Shops.
Partly as a result, DIS officials are trying to persuade the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to provide state funding to defray some of Daytona Rising’s costs through the Legislature’s Sports Development Program. Fueling their argument: more than 65 percent of Daytona 500 fans will come from outside Florida, while more than half will spend five or more nights here during their trip.
Outside of Speedweeks, DIS is busy year round. Daytona Rising is expected to make it even more so. DIS is adding major new activities to its calendar, including a three-day, mega music festival May 27 to 29 with such stars as Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Kid Rock, Lady Antebellum, Willie Nelson and 40 others. There’s even talk of bringing big-time college football games to DIS.
Clearly, DIS has its foot on the accelerator as it looks to broaden its legacy.
Photo Credit: Top image by Sarah Crabill via NASCAR.